Review: The Walking Dead: Episode 3
By Josh Snyder
Because The Walking Dead: Season Two is being released in episodes, the review will be updated with each release. A copy of The Walking Dead: Season Two was provided for review by Telltale Games. Warning, out of necessity, this review will contain certain spoilers. Click here for part one of the review – click here for part two.
Episode 3 – In Harm’s Way
When I started reviewing the second season of The Walking Dead, I was worried that the impact of each episode would be lessened by the time between finishing and episode and starting the next one. My experience with the first season came after all five episodes had been released, leaving little downtime between moment after gut-wrenching moment. Being forced to wait between episodes in Season Two seemed like it would detract from the experience, that those gut-wrenching moments would fade away, or, more likely, that after some lengthy period of reflection, I would come to accept the dire circumstances of the situation.
Of course, I was wrong, in more ways than I realized before firing up episode three. I kept finding excuses not to play the latest chapter, specifically because of how horrible things become at the end of Episode Two. The situation at the lodge, with the less-than-ideal reunion with Kenny followed by the arrival of Carver and his people, and the bloody encounter that ensued, was so dire, and the outlook for episode three so bleak, I often found myself wondering why Clementine was even trying to survive. I wouldn’t have thought less of her if she just wandered off into the night, resigned to her fate.
Thankfully, I worked up the nerve to play Episode Three, and I was rewarded – Telltale has learned how to end an episode on a note that is empowering to the player, while also casting the characters in a terrible situation, as the ending of In Harm’s Way does so brilliantly. But I also learned another lesson – I was playing The Walking Dead the wrong way this entire time. There is a reason each episode is released with downtime between the next one, and In Harm’s Way proves to be an expert lesson in pacing.
Getting to Know Carver
From the beginning of this season, Telltale has been working the story up to the arrival of William Carver, who seemingly would serve as the antagonist for this story. The new group of survivors Clementine fell in with speak of Carver as if he is the devil incarnate, and the player is led to believe that he must be a terrible person, since this new group of survivors is shifty at best, deplorable at worst, and they fear Carver to the extent that one sight of him will send them packing their things and heading in the opposite direction.
It came as a shock then that a confrontation with Carver would happen so soon – at the end of Episode Two. But this led me to believe that a long, drawn-out war with Carver would be the focal point of the rest of the season, and although I dreaded the outcome, a part of me was interested to see how that would play out. Carver (perfectly voiced by Michael Madsen) is the perfect villain – ruthless, charismatic, capable of convincing anyone to follow him into certain death. He possesses untold resources, especially given the post-apocalyptic nature of the world. A conflict with him would be an engaging story, and could sustain the remainder of the season.
And for the majority of episode three, the player is led to believe this to be the case. Once you arrive at Carver’s fortress, a reinforced retail store stocked with enough canned goods to last his army for years, the plot begins to spin it wheels. Clementine and the rest of the survivors are basically prisoners, or as one of Carver’s gun-toting thugs Bonnie puts it, it’s more like a work release. Do good under the harsh conditions and you may just be able to play a bigger role within this dictator-ruled community.
Welcome to Purgatory
At points this episode felt like it was dragging – Telltale knows how to craft characters, but with such little plot advancement it almost feels like their character designers began to show off, given all of the empty space that needed to be filled. If you play this episode and do not come to hate Carver by the mid-point, then you may be more psychopath than you realize. His methods are brutal, his reasoning non-existent. And this oppressiveness is all the player has to focus on, as Clementine moves from one mundane task to the other.
It didn’t occur to me until about three-quarters of the way through the episode that this story progressed slowly on purpose. Not only do the characters get some time to breath, but the player gets a mental break. I knew I hated Carver, but that doesn’t take much focus or concentration to sustain. But it was clear that the characters, and myself included, still had to work out the tragedy that happened at the ski lodge in episode two. Being given that opportunity almost feels like a gift we don’t deserve, which says plenty of how bleak this world has become.
But to focus solely on how the pacing of this episode benefits the player is doing Telltale a disservice. As I mentioned before, this episode taught me that I was playing The Walking Dead wrong. Play it as one big game all at once and the impact is actually lessened – by taking the time to think of the events, players begin to fully understand how crucial even the smallest choices can be, and this compounds onto each choice the player is forced to make in later episodes. At the same time, these episodes, when played as they are released, are often mistakenly viewed within a vacuum, when in reality they are meant to be taken in as a whole. Viewing each episode as a stand-alone product will make you miss an episode’s larger significance to the entire season. This point might be lost on players who don’t take advantage of that downtime between episodes to reflect, and to not do so is to miss out on a big portion of what makes The Walking Dead work so well.
This notion is best illustrated by comparing this episode to its counterpoint in Season One – the infamous train level. My dislike for Episode Three of Season One was so great that I nearly gave up on the game. But it was clear what Telltale was aiming for – after nearly being taken prisoner by cannibals, and after so many members of the group being killed, the player needed that break. But it came at the expense of a dull, tedious episode. Navigating that train, arguing with drunk Kenny – it all built up to one big frustrating experience that may have ended with a literal bang, but went out on a whimper.
Telltale clearly learned a valuable lesson from that episode, and in Season Two, In Harm’s Way does away with any sort of gameplay gimmick or forced moment of drama. Sure, the tasks Carver has you doing are mundane, and yes, some of the characters can be a bit irritating, but it feels natural given the surroundings. And, most importantly, it’s fun to do them.
The biggest takeaway for many gamers comes in the final moments. Clementine and the group hatch an escape plan. It turns out that, just south of Carver’s fortified retail store, a large group or walkers has amassed. They do not seem to notice the small army working day and night to secure the building, but Carver and his people worry that if they do, the results could be catastrophic.
Naturally, Kenny wants to use that to his advantage, and the plan is to break into Carver’s office where the controls for the PA system are located, and use them to lure in the horde. The time between this plan coming together and execution of the plan are near instantaneous, which works well with the deliberate pacing of the episode up until that point. Telltale leads you along just long enough, to the point where you want to take action, but never feel bored by the lack of it.
Depending on your outlook, the plan either succeeds, or the entire situation is a failure. Clementine is able to turn the PA system on, get the attention of the horde, and the group is able to escape. But it is in these chaotic moments that Telltale waits to reward the player for a season and a half of patience, of trudging through the darkness with no hope in sight. With Clementine’s assistance, you help Kenny kill Carver.
In his review of Episode Three of The Wolf Among Us, author Nick Olsen discussed how he reached a certain breaking point, and his actions no longer reflected a role he was playing, but he became the character, lashing out at a violent world. In this episode, when tasked with the choice of letting Kenny kill Carver, or attempting to stop him from doing so, I too found myself no longer playing a character. The chance for revenge, so swift, so brutal, felt so justified, and I didn’t hesitate. But not only does this moment fulfill the player’s sense of revenge, but it provides a victory, and those are hard to come by in The Walking Dead. On top of that, we get to watch as newcomer Jane, a young woman who has a penchant for smearing walker guts on herself and “blending in with the crowd,” puts an end to Carver’s right hand man, a despicable young man by the name of Troy, in one of the most bad-ass and gruesome ways possible given the circumstances. During both of these villains’ deaths, I found myself cheering and in shock – I never expected to achieve revenge in such a way on people who deserved it most. For a brief moment, everything felt right with the world.
Where To Now?
Of course, that moment didn’t really last, as the group’s escape plan led to more death, and the sudden and violent conclusion of the episode, led to more uncertainty. But I didn’t care – I won, I defeated Carver.
Telltale has shown that they have learned how to tell a story that is still bleak and hopeless, but at the same time give the player something to cling to. I assumed the rest of the season would be a battle with Carver, but now I have no idea what to think, and I love it.
The Walking Dead is showing no signs at all of slowing down, and my feelings on this season have completely flipped from where they were before I grudgingly sat down to play this entry. No longer do I dread what comes next, although I am sure nothing good will come. At the least I can see why, amidst all this death and destruction, Clementine still tries to survive. Because occasionally, something good will happen.